Politics & The World

This last weekend of protests in the US and elsewhere has been a success story in itself. Can you imagine the horror of a Trump inauguration uncontested? It would have been like a funeral with a disrespectful long-lost relative who keeps on insulting the deceased, while the aggrieved (i.e. Sanders and the Democratic Left) are forced to remain silent so as not to disturb the ceremony even more. People on the street, from bandana-wearing bin destroyers to baby-carrying families, shared a common goal: crashing the party, making their opposition heard, and showing the world that the new President of the United States is not an accurate reflection of American society.

One of the common questions, however, coming from both sympathetic and contrarian groups, was the following: why is it that these marches are “for women”, and not just “against Trump”; or for other groups also attacked by his campaign, such as Latinos? There are two ways of answering this question. The first and easy one is to say that, since Trump is not really in power yet, only women can, for the moment, embody a legitimate response based around the “grab’em by the pussy incident”, and other similar comments. Consequently, we’d have to wait to see how his presidency develops, whether he works towards building the wall with Mexico, deporting Muslims en masse, and other promises, in order to call for similar protests on behalf of those groups. This logic, implying a division of ‘issues’ between groups (rights for the LGBT movement/debt cancellation for students/labour protection for industrial workers) leads to dissolving the strenght of multitudes into unconnected pipes leading to nowhere.

Why is it, then, so tempting to make this about women and women alone? Probably, because it is satisfaying to see the ‘snowflake’ response from the alt-Right. Take a look at the Facebook comments on the news reports and private posts about the Women’s marches. I’m sure it’ll only take two seconds to spot some commentaries such as: “Ship all these bra burning libs out to Mosul and see who the real bigots are !!”, “Go make me a sandwich!”, “What a load of brain dead lefties think they can influence the United States democratic system ?”, “In one day, Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years” (these are real ones I just dug up, all of them with several “likes”). This brief satisfaction of standing against abuse, nonetheless, is counter-productive as it corresponds with the narrative of Trump’s followers.

How is single-issue “identity politics” (i.e. basing political action around belonging to a certain group) detrimental in opposing Trump? Simply, there is a specific argument this group of “deplorables” will be quick to make: these women are frustrated because “their candidate” lost the election, so they are questioning the US democratic system as whole in the name of “Shrillary”. They’ll wonder, “can you imagine if Hilary had won? Would we have had the same sort of global solidarity if we had led our own “March for Trump (or for America, or whatever they think they stand for)”? The answer is, of course, no. But they will still have legitimacy to make that claim, equalising the white nationalist cause with the women’s cause, on behalf of liberal pluralism.

This is why a limited identitarian approach, based on the idea of women opposing Trump, “because they’re women” (whether they are Sheryl Sandberg or Angela Davis) is the wrong way forward for developing a true opposition. As long as it is based on defending “toleration” or “respect” for victims, this movement will play in the hands of the Trumpian narrative by which he is defending another “oppressed minority”, the white working class forgotten by globalisation. Why should not we also tolerate Nazis, the KKK, pro-segregation people, etc.? They are also identities, minority opinions overlooked and ridiculed by the nation’s progressive media. The only way to break from this impasse is to understand that those women on the street today, like those in Black Lives Matter, are not speaking for their ‘interest’ group: they speak for all of us.

This is because the current economic system is not just an enemy of the white working class. While the coverage of the issues affecting these sectors of the population (endemic unemployment, alcoholism, depression, etc.) had been overlooked by most candidates and pundits (except, of course, Trump and Sanders), the weeks after the election saw an inverse shift on New York Times and similar outlets to reflect the concerns of the white working class. Suddenly, their lives were the only ones that “mattered”. But as a Black Lives Matter activist would be more than happy to clarify, more often than not, it is black lives (and deaths) that are forgotten by media and political institutions! Fighting for attention from liberal media quarters is certainly not another way forward to be pursued: one cannot measure suffering against suffering to see which is the worthier cause.

Instead, it should be clear that the current system (pre and post-Trump) does not deliver to any of these groups in particular, and is actually holding them all down. Poor students, illegal migrants, pensioners who’ve lost their savings: aren’t they all equally cut off from basic healthcare at the point of use, universal access to higher education, modern transport infrastructure and job security? Women, overrepresented in Federal jobs, and conducting many of the unpaid or underpaid tasks of “emotional labour” (child rearing, teaching, nursing, etc.) will definitely suffer more than other groups under a government promising more cuts to social services (not to mention the constant verbal abuse from Trump and his cronies).

This explains why women would be a leading organising group, but it doesn’t mean it is only their issues that should be regarded for a growing opposition. Marching women and their allies, contrary to what their detractors claim, should be seen as representing the future coming-together of groups, the potential universality of those threatened not just by Trump’s vulgarity, but by his vision of the world, his politics (in a wide sense).

“Particularlist” thinking has so far shaped the Democratic representatives’ attitude towards Trump’s nominees for top offices, who have been attacked on their lack of “credentials” and “professionalism” for their assigned policy areas. Remove the tit-for-tat exchanges on Congress, however, and the substance of economic and political thinking is the same: market knows best. If there are people suffering in America is because we still need a little financial inclusion and employment workshops here and there (Democrats); or because Obama, with his pro-State policies, blocked businesses from growing even more (Republicans). This is why activists, party sympathisers, churches, any organisation and possible ally against Trump must keep pushing and realise the only way forward is to initiate a process for a coherent political programme that can unite everybody around a different politics.

Enemies of Trump in America unite, you have nothing to lose but an orange president!

Politics & The World

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is dead. It was never really popular on either side of the Atlantic, but the election of Donald Trump finished it off. The socialists in Wallonia and the labor unions in Germany can thank the new men in the White House for doing what they could not.

EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström already announced that “TTIP will probably be in the freezer for quite some time, and what happens when it is defrosted, we will have to wait and see.”

But it seems unlikely that the negotiations will ever warm up again. Donald Trump has made it very clear in his “Plan To Rebuild the American Economy by Fighting for Free Trade” that he intends to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is already signed but not ratified. Even NAFTA, the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, which has been in place for more than 20 years, could be terminated under his presidency. Stopping TTIP would be the least drastic step among the changes that U.S. trade policy is going to experience in the coming years.

However, withdrawing from TTIP is the last thing to do if Trump intends to rebuild the American economy. A study by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) concluded that the economic benefits for the United States are 95 billion Euros (103 billion US dollars) by 2027; around the yearly GDP of Utah.

Protectionism has never made a country great again, and America will be no exception.

The main problem of many trade agreements is political. The benefits are spread out over many while the costs are concentrated on a few, who organize to oppose them. TTIP would create a net employment gain of 750,000; a number large enough to employ the working population of New Hampshire. But undoubtedly some people will become unemployed, and they do not care if some Washington think tank points out that their job losses are counteracted by the hiring of many more workers elsewhere.

This is exactly where most of the resentments against trade agreements originate. People are concerned that they will lose their jobs in a world where the pace of change keeps accelerating. It is easy to point to the nearby company that had to close down, but it is much harder to recognize the benefits consumers and workers enjoy because of cheaper goods and a more prosperous economy. As such, the gains for the U.S. from free trade are easily forgotten.

U.S. policymakers did a poor job of addressing the concerns of large parts of the population for too long. 68 percent of Trump supporters say, “free trade agreements have hurt them or their family” and the result of this frustration were seen last Tuesday. Yet the Trump administration would be even more in the wrong to give in to the temptation of isolating the U.S. economy from the rest of the world.

Fortunately a middle path exists. Additional support for workers who are laid off when the economy adjusts could be incorporated into the trade agreements. Or the highly debated investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments, could be scrapped. Such adjustments would not only be supported by Trump voters, but could find bipartisan backing from the Democrats as well. A renegotiated TTIP could not only strengthen the U.S. economy, but also help to unite this divided nation. Let us hope this is what Trump means when he promises to “appoint tough and smart trade negotiators to fight on behalf of American workers.”

Politics & The World

by Erik Kemmling

This week the twelfth round of negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) started – and the deal is as controversial as ever. TTIP has been one of the most prominent European issues of the past years. It triggered a mass politicization in 2015 but has recently lost a bit of its salience because of the refugee crisis.  Nevertheless, just like the refugee crisis, TTIP will accompany us throughout the new year. It is therefore important to recap and reflect now in order to have new food for thought for 2016.

I personally have decided to be against TTIP and I hope it will be rejected. Nevertheless, I see it as a distinct chance for Europe, especially with regard to its democratic accountability. How do these views fit together? At a first read such an opinion seems completely devious. In the coming paragraphs I will show why it is not, but first, it is important to recapitulate arguments in favor and against the deal.

Since it is a trade agreement, economic reasons seem to be of capital importance. Yet, calculations about potential GDP growth on each side of the Atlantic are rather questionable, as some studies show.

Another argument in favor of TTIP is its geostrategic importance. The US is the closest partner of the EU and is particularly needed considering the EU’s lack of hard power. Arguably, France and the UK have strong militaries but still no mission can be carried out without the help of the US. Also, since the enlargement process has come to a halt, the main soft power source of the EU has become toothless. The result is that countries in the European neighborhood and elsewhere favor cooperation with the China over the EU. China invests in development, but without demanding the respect of human rights in return, which is welcomed by many authoritarian leaders. Thus, an agreement such as TTIP that could foster EU-US relations would potentially increase the EU’s influence globally. For the EU’s geopolitical strategy TTIP is beneficial.

Let’s turn to the criticisms. Concerns over data and consumer protection have been among the most commonly cited. Just think of the famous chlorinated chicken. However, the main criticism is the lack of democratic accountability. Despite of what the chief-negotiator Cecilia Malmström might say, TTIP has several distinct characteristics that make it undemocratic.

First and foremost, the style of the negotiations. To test if something is democratic one can use the characteristics defined by Abraham Lincoln: “Government of the people, by the people and for the people”. Implicit in those characteristics is that government by the people preconditions opportunities for discovering and validating choices that best serve the citizens’ interest. In short, transparency is vital for democracy. Yet, the negotiations have not only been in-transparent but held in secret. This has been a major reason why the European public became suspicious and why the issue became popular. The Commission tried to respond to this criticism with various measures. Since recently, EU parliamentarians can go to reading rooms and have a look at parts of the documents but are not allowed to copy, photograph or even speak about the content. It is hard to speak of a real improvement in terms of transparency here.

Second, the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS), allowing companies to sue governments for profits they missed out on because of changes in policies. Governments will fear massive state losses and refrain from social, cultural and ecological policies that would otherwise benefit European society. This cannot really be considered government for the people.

So where do we go from here?  Understandably, a big part of European society is against this very undemocratic treaty that will have devastating effects on the environment, consumers and national governance. Others consider TTIP economically and strategically indispensable for the EU’s role in the world. Where should we stand? Should we stop it? Can we even stop it? Considering what is known about TTIP at this point, the reasons to be against outweigh the reasons to be in favor. Yet, decision-makers do not seem to deviate from their course. 2016 will be a year of debate and protest again.

Despite all the quarrels about TTIP there is a third perspective I would like to introduce. TTIP as a chance for the EU.

TTIP has led to mass demonstrations across Europe. People stand together in a solidary manner and fight for what they like about the EU, ranging from culture, consumer rights and the environment to democratic principles that are not yet completely in line with neo-liberal capitalism. Those demonstrations mark a true European moment. Those are the kind of moments we need in times of a lack of European solidarity, Schengen possibly at threat and alarming developments for example in Poland. TTIP has put a big part of European society on the same page. The treaty politicized the European public and enhanced European civil society.  Active citizens are what a healthy democracy needs and active European citizens are what the EU needs.

For years, one of the most common criticisms of the EU has been its lack of democratic legitimacy, characterized by a weak EP and a technocratic Commission that is said to have lost the connection to EU citizens. The gap between citizens and decision-makers seems to have been too big for too long, TTIP being the latest example. The European Commission and national leaders could now listen to the people and make the treaty acceptable. This would at least mean full transparency and no ISDS. If the treaty becomes one that is shaped by European citizens it would silence critics of the EU. It would prove that the institutional setup of the EU is democratic enough and that civil society can compensate an inherent problem of democratic accountability. People would see their voice matter in the EU. At this point we need to stop dreaming. Nothing points to this utopian compromise.

Therefore, I personally hope to see a rejection of TTIP. Even without TTIP, the US will remain the closest partner of the EU. But despite the apparent strategic tragedy, TTIP will have created a European civil society, a civil society that has defended the rights and principles of the EU. Maybe we should start to consider this a strategic asset for the EU in a global order.

Image by Mehr Demokratie/Friends of the Earth Europe/Lode Saidane, taken from flickr